PUNNING IN SHAKESPEARE. I have gone to quite a few standup comedy shows and soon came to a conclusion that puns don’t work with today’s audiences. Even a single pun, well-executed is very hard to pull off. I am reading Two Gentlemen of Verona in preparation for seeing it. It opens with a scene which includes a series of exchanges between one of the gentlemen and a servant/clown—exchanges which consist of puns and riddles. The changes in the language over 400 years have made it difficult to judge the puns, but they seem to me to be labored.
Shakespeare was a commercial playwright who could do anything he wanted to with the language. He chose in Two Gentlemen and in others of his plays to begin with puns, at the point where it is important to grab an audience. It seems likely that Shakespeare’s audiences enjoyed puns in a way that today’s audiences do not. Why?